At long last Madeleine Pickens is opening her wild-horse sanctuary and eco-resort. The glamorous British wife of Texas billionaire oilman T Boone Pickens has waged a five-year battle to rescue America’s wild horses since she discovered the US government was considering a massive cull of some 35,000 mustangs. Pickens returned fire with a proposal to buy a million acres for them.
Pickens, 64, a small, feisty blonde with an immaculately coiffed hair-do, is a powerful presence. “Wild horses are the beating heart and soul of this country,” she says. “The government has created one holy mess with all the animals they’ve gathered and I’m trying to fix it. I’ve been doing all this by myself and it’s been one mighty long fight. These mustangs are emblematic of America’s freedom. They helped blaze our trails and fought our battles, and they’re ending up on dinner plates in Europe and Japan. I want to put them all back on the range where they belong.”
Her sanctuary in north-eastern Nevada, called Mustang Monument, is spread across three valleys and two mountain ranges in what was once prime horse country. Last summer, the first 900 rescues, all mares and foals that were “headed for slaughter in Mexico” from an Indian reservation, were trucked in and let loose at the ranch.
By early summer, her sprawling ranch will be ready to welcome visitors from around the world. Just off highway 93 in the former ghost town of Wells, Nevada, dozens of Native-American-style tepees line the lonesome desert rangeland between the Ruby and Spruce mountains, and, shimmering in the distance, hundreds of wild mustangs, once slaughterhouse-bound, wander the prairies.
“We’re selling something everyone has a soft spot for — wild horses,” she says, hoping that Mustang Monument “will become a tourist destination”. She envisions the creation of a rambling wilderness preserve as an opportunity to recapture the Old West on the grand scale of Yellowstone Park, where people can come with their friends and families, camping in tepees, telling stories over bonfires and watching the mustangs running wild as nature intended.
“It’s so sweet to see the way the horses all come for feeding time at sunset,” she says, slipping into a slight Texas twang. “They look for us and stand, waiting. They’re so civilised. They have very strong family ties. That’s why when they’re rounded up by helicopters, some of the horses run themselves to the point of exhaustion and death, and foals are often trampled. The colts would be separated from the mares, and the babies taken away from the moms. I want people to learn about that. Why do we destroy things rather than try to make things better?”
A former air hostess, Pickens — born to a Lebanese mother and an English father — is now an American, businesswoman, philanthropist and an animal-lover nonpareil. After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, her husband gave $10 million to aid the people of New Orleans, but Madeleine wanted to help the animals after seeing images of terrified pets stranded in water-logged houses and trees. “Seeing all those scared little faces was heartbreaking. I said to Boone: ‘Sweetheart, we need to help them. Why don’t we get an airplane and just airlift them out?’” They did, chartering several commercial planes to fly 800 cats and dogs to Californian shelters.
Her eco-resort — a heady mix of glamour and the great outdoors where you can rough it as much or as little as you like — is as romantic as her preservation plan for the horses. She wants people to experience the simplicity and beauty of the American West, the joys of falling asleep under the stars and waking up with wild horses. Each tepee is a gorgeous, light-filled space, appealingly stripped-back with bijou touches such as crisp linens on king-sized beds, patchwork quilts, lanterns, wispy dream catchers and even a tribal head-dress to set the mood. There are also the larger, more luxurious safari-style tents, resembling something out of a Ralph Lauren ad, elegantly furnished with four-poster beds, antique leather trunks and hand-woven kilim rugs.
Pickens hopes to revitalise a sleepy desert backwater by promoting American safaris, customised tours that might include riding the range by horseback, jeep or horse-drawn wagons, exploring abandoned mining towns, camping in the canyons, as well as day trips at the ranch. “I want children to connect with the natural world around them. The history of our land is so vital,” says Pickens, who fell in love with the American West while watching westerns as a child in London. She’s also creating a greenhouse and a large garden where visitors can “watch their kids grow vegetables on the land. We’re giving people an opportunity to go back in time. The response from tour operators, who have visited the ranch, has been overwhelming”.
Her philanthropic efforts have not been made without a backlash. As well as buying a million acres of Nevada rangeland, Pickens took on the almighty cattlemen who view the wild horses as pests, stealing grass that is meant for their cows. Many corporate ranchers and locals speculate that her idea is nothing more than a well-disguised land-grab of an oil-rich state. “There’s nothing in it for me,” she says, exasperated. “I only truly want to save these poor horses, and I have put the land in a foundation.”
Mustang Monument’s grazing rights on roughly 570,000 acres of public land, overseen by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), has also become a contentious issue. Under pressure from the beef lobby, the BLM has been rounding up thousands of mustangs each year, adopting a few while others end up in slaughterhouses overseas. The BLM keeps nearly 50,000 horses in captivity. “More than 15,000 are crammed into corrals, butt to butt in squalid conditions without any protection from the elements,” explains Pickens, while the others are kept in long-term pastures, costing taxpayers $70 million a year. “I can look after mustangs more cheaply and humanely.”
Pickens, who set up a charitable foundation called Saving America’s Mustangs, wants to provide a home on the range for thousands of wild and unwanted horses and burros, as well as saving taxpayers’ money. She plans to eventually open a series of large-scale public-private eco-sanctuaries across the western states — under consideration of the BLM. “I want to get on with it. I want to be alive before this is finished,” she says, three years into tangling with red tape and local ranchers. “My dream is starting to come true. I want it to come true for the American people, for everybody to see these amazing horses and get to know this incredible aspect of their heritage. I can’t wait for the grand opening this summer.”